Wednesday, 28 December 2016


On the southern edge of the Isle of Mull in the Inner Hebrides there is an arm of land, the Ross of Mull, that reaches out westwards towards the holy island of Iona. On the map, the end of this peninsula looks a little like a hand wearing mittens, or perhaps a cat’s paw reaching towards a mouse. The inlet between the hand and the thumb is Loch na Làthaich, and on the shores of the loch sits the village of Bunessan. This is a landscape defined by the brown-green of the hills and the grey-blue of the sky and sea. It is a beautiful landscape but also a harsh one, where crofters scraped out a precarious living.

Bunessan village viewed from Lower Ardtun
© JaneMcArtney [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Just outside Bunessan is a stone monument commemorating a woman named Mary MacDonald. In some ways Mary’s life was unremarkable: in outline it was the same as hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other women who lived in the highlands and islands of Scotland. She was a farmer’s daughter, born in 1789 in Ardtun, a crofting settlement to the east and north of Bunessan. She married Neil MacDonald and lived her whole life here as a crofter’s wife, till her death in 1872.
Monument to Mary MacDonald outside Bunessan, Isle of Mull
from the Isle of Mull website:

Like all of her community Mary was a Gaelic speaker; but more significantly, she was a Gaelic singer. As she sat at her spinning-wheel in her tiny cottage she would sing. Sometimes she would make up her own songs, setting them to the old folk melodies of the islands: her monument outside Bunessan describes her as a poetess. She was a devout Baptist, and her songs were often hymns. Some of these became well-known in the area, perhaps being sung in the little church in Bunessan that was built in 1804. Her cairn outside the village quotes from one of these hymns:


In 1888 a journalist and Gaelic scholar named Lachlan Macbean brought out a collection of Gaelic lyrics named Songs and Hymns of the Scottish Highlands. In his introduction to the book, Macbean paints a romantic picture of the region as portrayed in its folk-songs:
The listener is at once transported to the bens and glens, brown moorlands, bounding deer and whirring blackcocks, foaming cascades, tree-fringed watercourses, thatched cottages, lonely lakes, and ever in the background the eternal mountains, silent and solemn. Such is the scenery through which move before us the characters which the songs introduce. These characters are few—a fair maiden tending her flock, a stalwart hunter breasting the hill, a venturesome boatman on the treacherous loch, a wild outlaw who delights in deeds of derringdo, a frantic widow wailing over her fatherless child, and perhaps a ghostly shape peering through the gloaming on the margin of the eerie woodland. That is the stage scenery and these the dramatis personae of northern minstrelsy. Its imagery is equally native. A damsel’s bosom is white as the mountain cotton, her cheeks red as the berries of the rowan tree, and her hair yellow as the clouds of evening or black as the raven’s wing. In fine, there hangs over Highland poesy an unmistakeable odour of the mountain air, heavy with the breath of the heather, with an occasional dash of ozone from the western sea.
But away from the white-bosomed damsels Macbean also turned his attention to the spiritual life of the Highlands:
A stern theology harmonises well with the environment and history of the Highlander, and whether as Pagan or as Calvinist he is most like himself when chanting eternal ‘Misereres’ of unutterable pathos.
One of the hymns he included in the book has words by Mary MacDonald. It is in fact the one quoted on her memorial cairn near Bunessan, though Macbean’s version has slightly different words. (Being sadly ignorant of Gaelic, I cannot judge how significant these differences are.) 
Leanabh an àigh!
Leanabh bh’aig Màiri;
Rugadh an stàbull,
Righ nan dùl!
Thainig do’n fhàsach,
Dh’fhuiling ’nar n-àite
Son’iad an aireamh
Bhitheas dha dluth!
MacBean translated this into English as follows:
Child in the manger!
Infant of Mary;
Outcast and stranger,
Lord of all!
Child who inherits
All our transgressions,
All our demerits
On Him fall!
You can see what he meant about the Highlanders’ stern theology and unutterable pathos: even the tender crib-scene of this Christmas carol is infused with a strong sense of sin.

This carol, in its English translation, began to be more widely known in the decades following the publication of MacBean’s collection. It was included in a number of hymnbooks aimed at the Nonconformist churches, starting with The Revised Church Hymnary in 1927. In MacBean’s book the hymn had been set to an old Gaelic melody, presumably the one to which Mary MacDonald had sung it. As it passsed into hymnbooks this tune acquired the name BUNESSAN, after the village on the Isle of Mull near which Mary MacDonald had lived.

The Revised Church Hymnary was a Presbyterian collection of hymns. It was a collaboration of churches the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, but its roots were very much Scottish: the original Church Hymnary of 1898 was the fruit of a committee set up five years earlier by the three main non-Anglican churches of Scotland. 

Meanwhile in England, by the time the The Revised Church Hymnary was published, hymn-singers could choose from not only successive editions of the monumental Victorian Hymns Ancient and Modern, but also The English Hymnal (first published in 1906), edited by Percy Dearmer and Ralph Vaughan Williams. One of the characteristics of The English Hymnal was its use of a number of folk melodies, adapted and in many cases ‘tidied up’ to make them suitable for congregational singing. Vaughan Williams was a firm believer in the idea that music was rooted in a particular place: just as the English language is different from German, French, Gaelic or Italian, so English music also has its distinctive character. And he thought that the songs that come from the land, from the ordinary people, reflected that character more clearly than music from composers trained in the academic schools of music.

In 1925 Vaughan Williams and Dearmer brought out another hymnbook, called Songs of Praise, which they explained was meant to be a ‘national collection of hymns for use in public worship’. It is fairly clear that by ‘national’ they meant ‘English’. For this book Vaughan Williams shared the duties of Music Editor with the composer Martin Shaw. In 1931 an Enlarged edition of Songs of Praise was brought out. Shaw had seen the tune BUNESSAN in MacBean’s book and was enchanted by the charming simplicity of the melody. As so often in the collaborations between Dearmer, Vaughan Williams and Shaw, the music was the impetus, with the quality of the tune alone ensuring that it took its place in the hymn-book, even before suitable words were found. In the case of BUNESSAN, they decided they needed completely new words, partly because they could not find a suitable existing hymn to fit the tune and partly because they wanted to include a hymn on ‘thanksgiving for each day as it comes’. Martin Shaw approached Eleanor Farjeon, a Hamptsead resident who was well-known as the author of successful children’s books, a memoir about the War poet Edward Thomas, and some collections of verse. Farjeon’s response was a poem entitled Thanks for a Day:
Morning has broken
Like the first morning,
Blackbird has spoken
Like the first bird.
Praise for the singing!
Praise for the morning!
Praise for them, springing
Fresh from the Word!
Her words were printed in Songs of Praise Enlarged, set to BUNESSAN, and in this form the hymn became immensely well-known. Given the target audience of Songs of Praise, it was perhaps inevitable that Morning has broken became popular (or at least frequent) in school assemblies; and its popularity spread even more widely when the American singer Cat Stevens released his recording of the song in 1971.

In some ways we have come a long way from Mary MacDonald sitting at her spinning-wheel in her cottage near Bunessan and singing a darkly tender Christmas lyric to an old Gaelic melody. I wonder whether those crofters subsisting in the harsh climate of the Inner Hebrides would have appreciated the sentiment of lines like Sweet the rain’s new fall; but when there is a break in the clouds these islands really do appear to be sunlit from heaven.